On Standing Still in a Shady Place

I’ve been proofreading my existing translation the past few days in an effort to get them all in an equal state of editing and consistency, and today I re-encountered a fascinating example of how translation causes literary traditions to collide and intertwine with each other. It’s a Chinese term that was used to translate a difficult passage in MA 6 (AN 7.55).


The Buddha said, "What are the seven? A monk’s practice ought to be thus: ‘I have no self and nothing is mine. In the future, there’ll be no self, and nothing will be mine.’ He readily ends what has been, and he attains equanimity after ending it. The pleasures he has don’t stain him, and he doesn’t cling to what has come together. Such a practitioner sees by the wisdom of unsurpassed stillness, but he has yet to attain its realization.

The Pali parallel reads:

Bhagavā etadavoca: “katamā ca, bhikkhave, satta purisagatiyo? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu evaṃ paṭipanno hoti: ‘no cassa no ca me siyā, na bhavissati na me bhavissati, yadatthi yaṃ bhūtaṃ taṃ pajahāmī’ti upekkhaṃ paṭilabhati. So bhave na rajjati, sambhave na rajjati, atthuttari padaṃ santaṃ sammappaññāya passati.

Sujato’s English translation:

The Buddha said this: “And what are the seven places people are reborn? Take a mendicant who practices like this: ‘It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be, and it will not be mine. I am giving up what exists, what has come to be.’ They gain equanimity. They’re not attached to life, or to creating a new life. And they see with right wisdom that there is a peaceful state beyond. But they haven’t completely realized that state. They haven’t totally given up the underlying tendencies of conceit, attachment to life, and ignorance.

What I’ve translated as “stillness” is what appears to be a Chinese literary reference that means “stop (making) tracks” (息迹). It harks back to a passage in the Zhuangzi, an influential Daoist classic that any well-read Chinese reader would have been familiar with. The passage reads:




Legge’s English translation:

Confucius looked sorrowful and sighed. (Again) he bowed twice, and then rose up and said, ‘I was twice driven from Lu. I had to flee from Wei; the tree under which I rested was cut down in Song; I was kept in a state of siege between Chen and Cai. I do not know what errors I had committed that I came to be misrepresented on these four occasions (and suffered as I did).’

The stranger looked grieved (at these words), changed countenance, and said, 'Very difficult it is, Sir, to make you understand.

"There was a man who was frightened at his shadow and disliked to see his footsteps, so that he ran to escape from them. But the more frequently he lifted his feet, the more numerous his footprints were; and however fast he ran, his shadow did not leave him. He thought he was going too slow, and ran on with all his speed without stopping, till his strength was exhausted and he died. He did not know that, if he had stayed in a shady place, his shadow would have disappeared, and that if he had remained still, he would have lost his footprints: his stupidity was excessive!

Now, this literary reference appears to have been employed to translate a notion of ultimate peace in a Buddhist text. Yet, if the original Agama was similar to the Pali, “not making tracks” would be parallel to padaṃ santaṃ (!). The roughly parallel notions of stopping karma and Zhuangzi’s concept of non-action (wuwei) dovetail each other, yet the Chinese translation may have been a case of excessive literalism. Whether it was an accident or not, a Chinese reader may well notice a connection.


Amazing connection! That indicates a similar way of seeing the truth between enlightened beings. But anyway I have always thought that Laozi (or perhaps Zhuangzi too) was a Pacceka Buddha :blush:, so similar things between the two must be expected, but this one was down to the most minute detail.


May I offer my own translation of the term: “The tranquil wisdom that is beyond any traces.” I corrected it a bit to match the Pali word order:

atthuttari padaṃ santaṃ sammappaññāya

無上迹息慧 :point_left:t4: I think this should be the correct form (to match the Pali), instead of 無上息迹慧. It makes much more sense to me, because 上迹 clearly means “Beyond [any] traces”, it’s often just 上迹, but 無上迹 :thinking:, I think they must have the same meaning, with the latter is probably more emphatic. And furthermore should 跡 instead of 迹? (How did the simplified character get here?:scream: It’s blasphemy)

Anyway, karma has its course, here I am coming back to this topic a year later to find the answer for the same translation’s puzzle. Excellent explanation by @cdpatton. Thank you. :pray:t3:


It’s possible, though there aren’t any alternate readings to give us some objective evidence of later tampering. Neither 息迹 nor 迹息 occur in any other Chinese translation, but they are found a few times in exegetical texts.

Actually, I think 迹 may be intended to be a verb in MA rather than a noun. It occurs only a few times in MA, but copyists didn’t correct it to 跡 (which is far more common), which is often evidence of non-standard synonyms that bother copyists when they encounter them. It appears to refer to taking steps or traveling rather than the foot prints left behind. In MA 195, it’s part of the verb 趣迹, which is probably something like English “headed for”.

So, my reading of 息迹 is literally to “stop taking steps,” which I take to be figurative expression for “stand still” => stillness. It’s the stillness of oneself, however, not the stillness of what’s around the person (which wouldn’t be the natural understanding in English, alas).

In this Buddhist passage, the stillness would presumably be of the mind since it’s describing a type (or source?) of wisdom.